Leechy weather

Our daily routine is simple: pick a direction, point to a spot on the map, and try to get there and back in one piece. In the pre-dawn glow of the campfire it looks surprisingly straightforward. It’s our own fault for believing the map. Each morning, full of the optimism that a fresh day inspires, we spread the paper out in front of us and plan our surveys. The map is helpful: it shows distances and elevation. But it is still a two-dimensional abstraction. It doesn’t show the walls of bamboo that we will have to hack our way through. It doesn’t show the sheer-drop slippery waterfalls that we will have to climb down. It doesn’t show the frothing rapids that we will have to cross. And so each morning we plan over-ambitious routes for the day. And each afternoon we stagger back into camp tired, hungry, beaten, having only covered a fraction of the ground we had planned on surveying. According to Anh Thanh, our veteran Forest Protection Department guide, this is the most treacherous landscape in Central Vietnam. I believe him. Yet that provides small consolation for the fact that to me we’re simply not covering enough ground. The cycle continues. Each day we push ourselves harder than the day before. Each night we feel more dead than alive.

Despite my concerns about not surveying enough area I remain optimistic about the work we are doing. The animals are there: every day we come across the cloven hoof prints of ungulates stamped into the soil. The leeches are there: in the leaf litter, on the vegetation, squirming up our legs. Putting two and two together we should be getting data on the mammals that silently stalk these jungles: fragments of mitochondrial DNA locked deep inside the blood cells of animals that the leeches have fed upon. These bits of nucleic acid, adrift in the stomach soup of an inch-long ectoparasite, are the puzzle pieces that we need as we begin to paint a portrait of one of the least known mammalian communities on the planet. To put together a complete picture we need as many brushstrokes as possible, which means lots of leeches. Fortunately we are getting good numbers: daily results are measured in hundreds, rather than tens, as has been the case during some of our previous surveys. Part of our leech-gathering success is due to the weather. A steady drizzle falls every hour and is broken only by the sudden chaos of a sky-splitting downpour. It’s the leechy weather we’ve been waiting for. The conditions make surveying in this up-and-down terrain particularly demanding. Our hands search for purchase on slick rock surfaces, our feet disappear in mires of muck, we are always cold and wet. The field conditions begin to wear on the team. Our energy is draining away daily. But we are getting results. If we can find the strength to finish this expedition strong I feel that our efforts will be rewarded. I am confident that here, in a remote corner of the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve, animals like Saola and Annamite dark muntjac, the rarest of the rare, still roam.

Leech close up
Leech close up

Anh Thanh hiking into the jungle

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